Starting Gardens from Seed

11/23/2012 | Ken Lain, mountain gardener Plant Care

After the past couple of weeks’ extremely cold weather, I am ready to start my garden planning sessions. My anticipation really is fired up since the 2011 organic seeds arrived at the garden center this week. I know I’m not alone envisioning spring gardens in January. In dream-like states gardeners flip through pages of the latest garden catalogs, web sites, and magazines.

Before you go out and buy your garden seed over the ‘net, let me alert you to the most important thing to know before hitting that ‘Buy it Now’ button. After that I’ll give you some pointers on starting new seedlings indoors.

Freshness is everything with seed. Make sure you know what you are buying before you have to claim black thumbs this spring. Know the person/company you are buying the seed from or you can have failures from old, leftover seeds. That’s it. The most significant thing you can do before buying seeds is to check for seed freshness. You don’t want to struggle with seeds that were swept off the packing room floor last year, placed in a beautiful package, then sold for 89 cents on an online gardening site.

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Crops of seedlings are a gardener’s prelude to actually gardening out-of-doors; it’s gardening while winter temperatures prevent digging in outdoor beds. It’s plant nurturing at its most intimate. To start your seed-growing project, assemble in your work area all the materials you will need. Gather the containers and trays for drainage. These may be clean plastic pots, peat or plastic trays. For the planting medium, I prefer a ‘Soilless Seedling Mix’, aka peat planting mix, because of its sterility and ease of use. It can be purchased at any of the better garden centers.

Many seed varieties require a constant germination temperature. So, you definitely should invest in a waterproof soil-heating mat. These usually are pre-set to keep soil at 72 degrees, but many have adjustable thermostats. At $39.99 the mats are a little pricey, but worth the investment towards increased success. They also are re-usable for many years.

Fill your pots or flats within 1/4 inch of the rim. Moisten the soil by placing it in a pan of room temperature water until it is thoroughly wet. Allow the excess water to drain from the pots, tamp them lightly to remove any air pockets and to pack the medium. You are now ready to sow some seeds!

It is important to know if the seeds you plan to sow need any special treatment before planting. Some may need soaking for a few hours, some may require days in the freezer, others will need to be scarified (nicking the seed hull). It is a good idea to do your sowing in stages so that in the event of one “crop disaster” you will have programmed a second chance.

Depending on the size of the seed you may have to create a seed ‘trench’ or punch a row of small holes with a dibble stick. The rows should be at least an inch apart. The planting depth is critical, usually one or two times the diameter of the seed. Neither very fine seeds nor seeds that require light for germination should be covered at all.

Now you need to create a miniature greenhouse environment for the pots or flats. This can be done by placing them inside a sealed plastic bag (using small stakes to hold the plastic from actually resting on the soil mix) or by putting them under a sheet of glass; an old aquarium works very well for this. There also are ready-made seedling greenhouses that really simplify this stage of your set up. The shelter from a little “greenhouse” will almost eliminate the necessity of watering again before the seeds germinate. But be sure to keep an eye on the soil’s moisture.

Place your flats not in direct sun but in an area where they will get good light and stay as close to the desired temperatures as possible. Germination can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of months, depending on what you are growing, so you’ll have to call on varying degrees of patience. Once the seeds have poked through the soil, remove the green housing and gradually move the flat into brighter lights or sun. Your seedlings will be quite tender and fragile at this time, so to preclude disaster a radical change must be avoided.

At this stage the seedlings have underdeveloped root systems, so watering is critical. Check it daily! The potting medium must remain moist, but never soggy. Very wet soil will deprive the roots of life-giving oxygen and drown your new plants. Bottom watering is best at this point because spraying can dislodge the plants and water on the leaves may lead to fungus attacks. Temperatures should be kept at about 70-75 degrees.

Once the second set of leaves develops you can begin to feed your new seedlings. Up until this time the seedlings have been receiving nourishment from the seeds. Fertilizing should be done from the bottom at this point, using a very dilute ¼-strength mix of soluble ‘All Purpose Plant Food’ once a week. When the plants have grown to about 3 inches you can begin to water and feed the plants from above.

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January is a good time to get specific-to-your-needs advice from us garden center horticulturalists. We are tired of painting, setting new walkways, scraping more snow, or spreading ice melt. We desperately look for local gardeners to help break our dead-of-winter routines. Also, service is better because business is less frenetic now than it will be during the crazy spring months.

Until next week, I’ll see you at the garden center.